Sir Winston Churchill once famously said that we should never let a good crisis go to waste. Never was this truer for Alberta than today.
As the reality of sliding oil prices settled in last year, Premier Jim Prentice described the province’s fiscal situation as “the most challenging financial and economic circumstances we’ve seen in our province in a generation.” The Economist magazine recently used a similar turn of phrase when it called on governments around the world to take “the once-in-a-generation opportunity” to implement smarter energy policies, including putting a price on carbon emissions.
A new provincial climate change framework and an energy sustainability strategy are both due to be released later in 2015. They represent a tremendous opportunity to set a clear direction and demonstrate Alberta’s vision and commitment.
Meanwhile, let’s consider the next provincial budget. What if we used this moment to fundamentally address the inherent risk of a provincial budget that is so tied to the price of a single global commodity over which we have no control? What if, building from our strengths and the legacy of all that we’ve accomplished, we used this moment to prepare ourselves for the carbon-constrained future we know is coming? What if we constructed a provincial budget that assumes oil prices at today’s levels and then, when the prices do eventually rise, we save the ensuing surpluses for investment in continued Albertan leadership in that future?
In Alberta, the temptation will surely be to revert to the policies of the past, or to consider only incremental adjustments to current policies. In part this is because the cultural narratives that shaped those policies are so strong. Jobs versus the environment. No provincial sales tax in Alberta. National Energy Program. As goes the oil business, so goes our economy.
But as our province grows and our demographics change, more and more Albertans are questioning the old storylines, asking how well they mesh with the realities of a rapidly evolving world. For example, public opinion polls show most people strongly favour the middle ground in the polarized debates around energy and resource development, even though the dominant public narrative still suggests that the poles offer us our only choices. Most of us just want to ensure that our children and grandchildren have the same or better opportunities for a good life as we have today. It’s the same ethic that Alberta brought to the national consciousness when Preston Manning and his colleagues reminded us of the consequences of our growing national debt in the 1980s and 1990s: We shouldn’t borrow from the future to pay for today.
When it comes to energy issues, there is no hypothetical sweet spot that perfectly balances environmental, social and economic concerns. But we can find solid middle ground for the majority by thinking about transition. How can Alberta’s strengths and assets in today’s energy system serve as a platform for innovation and leadership in the transition to the energy system that the future requires of us?
Even in the absence of clear policy direction, many Albertans are already working with a “transition” vision in mind. Applying their talents and commitment as social and technological innovators, they work both outside and within our established energy industries and other sectors, startups, universities, municipal governments, and non-profit organizations. The City of Edmonton’s Energy Transition Strategy is just one among many fine examples of Albertan institutions readying themselves for a much different energy future. Another inspiring example is the Landmark Group, a successful home builder now also a renewable energy provider.
Innovators like these are writing some of the new Alberta narratives. To support them, we need to consider today’s public policies and investments not by weighing the environmental cons against the economic pros, but in light of their strategic potential for taking us toward the sustainable, resilient energy system we will need to be as successful in the 21st century as we were in the 20th. This is environmental leadership as a source of economic opportunity.